The Loss of Limits… the End of Art

A priest friend and I are reading through Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ posthumously-published work, American Babylon: Notes of a Christian Exile, and it’s been an enjoyable read thus far, even in the places where I disagree with the author.

For the purposes of this post, I wanted to share a citation which I found very intriguing regarding the impact on art of modernity’s flight from anything which might be remotely conceived of as limitation.

On pp. 65-67 Fr. Neuhaus references The Coming of the Golden Age. A View of the End of Progress, published in 1969 by UC-Berkeley molecular biologist Gunther Stent. In this work, Stent comments on how art has been adversely effected by the desire to free oneself from all restraint, real or imagined. As quoted by Neuhaus, Stent writes,

However, the artist’s accession to near-total freedom of expression now presents very great cognitive difficulties for the appreciation of his work. The absence of recognizable canons reduces his act of creation to near-randomness for the perceiver. In other words, artistic evolution along the one-way street to freedom embodies an element of self-limitation.

I found this to be a compelling way to demonstrate the reality of limits on human power, i.e. the fact that no matter how much we might rebel, there are certain constraints which are impossible to avoid. Like it or not, we are contingent, created beings, and as such, our fulfillment comes about not by pushing the limits, but precisely by living deeply within them.

(Incidentally, this chapter of Neuhaus’ book is essentially a reprint of his 1999 First Things article, “The Idea of Moral Progress“; the Stent quote can be found there as well.)

The Coming of the Golden Age. A View of the End of Progress

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